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Agriculture technology startups network at AgTechX event in Yuma

AgTechX Rafael Davila.jpg
Victor Calderón/KAWC
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Rafael Davila, at podium, founder of Priority Sampling, speaks to attendees at the AgTechX food safety event in Yuma on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

Yuma Agriculture provides most of the vegetables Americans eat in the winter.

The industry also employs tens of thousands of people and contributes billions to the state and local economy.

That’s why when E-coli contaminates lettuce sourced to the region, or listeria in bagged salad shuts down a local production plant, it’s a blow to the entire Yuma ag community.

KAWC’s Victor Calderon reports on an event in Yuma last week that will give growers new tools and technology to keep food safe.

The AgTech X Food Safety Technology event in Yuma brought food safety experts and researchers together with growers to talk about how advances in science may provide new resources in the fight to prevent contamination of crops from field to store shelves.

The event introduced the Food Safety Cohort, a group of companies working on technologies to protect fields and speed up diagnostic testing to identify pathogens.

"Our technology is based on DNA testing for the bacteriaand other microbes that are in food," said Mike Hogan, co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer for PathogenDx, a biotechnology company based in Tucson. "We measure the whole panel of bacteria that might be important in terms of contaminants-lettuce, leafy greens and so forth- all in the same test so it's not just E.coli, it's not just salmonella but you can get a very good, sensitive, very specific measurement of all the contaminants that could be important."

Hogan says his company can identify pathogens faster and easier with a technology that can be used not only in crop agriculture, but also in dairy farming and even healthcare.

Faster and better testing is one area of innovation, testing managed and conducted by robots may be another.

Rafael Davila is the founder of Priority Sampling. The company does pathogen field testing in the Yuma and Salinas ag regions.

Crop sampling is traditionally labor intensive and requires specialized skills.

Davila presented on Scout, a robot that he says revolutionizes food safety by automating pathogen sampling and field surveillance.

"We created a machine to help collect these samples a lot faster while recording the process so we're giving our customers more tools to be able to analyze the data and using AI (artificial intelligence) to hopefully alert them to start scanning labeling and alert them for certain hazards so they have a digital layout of the problem, what could be the problem and have them identify it," Davila said.

Quick response and early detection are key to preventing contaminants from spreading in the food distribution system. Advances in testing may give the industry a faster response strategy.

"Existing technology relies on culturing bacteria prior to DNA testing," said Tom Jacobs, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for SnapDNA in Colorado, "That's the bottleneck."

Jacobs says current testing technology can take 24 to 36 hours to get results to growers.

His company offers RNA-based pathogen detection in less than one hour. They do it by looking for specific pathogens instead of running a culture and waiting to see what grows.

"We selectively target and capture bacteria in the same order as what we're looking for and then we use PCR analysis to identify exactly what we're looking for," Jacobs said.

Getting new technology into the hands of growers and food distributors is the goal of the AGTECHX event.

Dennis Donahue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, co-sponsors of AGTECHX, along with the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture and the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, says the event kicks off a year of “acceleration” – a push to bring the newest technologies and innovation into the food safety movement.

"The reality is technology in a vacuum doesn't work," Donohue said. "It really has to be co-developed so we decided it was important that we do that so we use the frame of a year of acceleration and Yuma's where we kick it off."

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